Updated: Jul 2, 2020
Bathgate's annual fortnight of summer festivities - the John Newland Festival, culminating with the Bathgate Procession - is one of the biggest events in the West Lothian gala season. And the story behind it is quite different from any of the other galas.
So who was John Newland was and why is he celebrated in Bathgate?
One of the many Scots who sailed to the West Indies in the 18th century to make their fortunes out of sugar and slaves, John Newland was a Bathgate resident who would have been forgotten - left Bathgate, got rich on sugar plantations in Jamaica and died there - except that he decided to name his native town of Bathgate in his will, stipulating that a school should be built.
John Newland was a Bathgate resident who would have been forgotten - left Bathgate, got rich on sugar plantations in Jamaica and died there - except that he decided to name his native town of Bathgate in his will, stipulating that a school should be built.
He was born in 1737 and his family lived in Bathgate. We know very little about his personal life either here or in Jamaica, where by 1768 he had settled and was running a sugar plantation.
He may have been influenced to name his home town as beneficiary by a visit from Dr Corbett of Hopetoun Inn at the time. In any case he became rich, like so many others, off the slave labour on his plantations and he died in Jamaica in 1799.
The estate he left was valued at around £48,000 - including 100 or so black slaves valued at about £15,000. But his will was not clear in all its details; the estate was to be sold by the executors of his will, and the proceeds passed to named trustees to be invested for 10 years; the interest earned was to be used to build a school in Bathgate.
Several relatives were named to receive small amounts of money, but it wasn't clear who was to get the £48,000. So the will was disputed by his relatives and a settlement wasn't reached until 1815. A large proportion of the money was used up to meet the cost of the lengthy litigation.
In the end, the Trustees were given £14,500 for the school, and Bathgate Academy was built in 1833 - the building which still stands today on Majoribanks Street. (It was in fact one of several schools built from Newland's bequest, with other smaller schools also built in the area). Alexander Majoribanks was one of the local Trustees who contested Newland's will in favour of the town.
The first Newland's Day was celebrated on 17th April 1843, ten years after the completion of the Bathgate Academy.
The Newland's Oration was added in 1933, the centenary of the Academy. The oration used to take place in the Academy Hall, but since the the original Academy has been converted into flats, the oration is now held in Bathgate High Church and is always delivered by a former pupil or notable Bathgate personality on the Friday night prior to Procession day.
Newland's Day has been celebrated almost every year since its inauguration - and every year without fail since 1961 making it the longest-running uninterrupted gala event in West Lothian, thanks to the dedicated committee who work hard behind the scenes all year round. It now takes place on the first Saturday of June and over the years other events had been added so the full programme now includes two weeks of activities in the lead up to Newland's Day itself. The festivities are designed to have something for everyone within the town and include children's and adults' sporting events, a quiz night, music, treasure hunt and BBQ.
The day itself starts with solo drummers parading the town to awake everyone for the day ahead. There are bands, a decorated vehicle competition, judging of decorated houses and at 11am a pageant ceremony involving 120 characters from Bathgate's history, played by local children.
The historical pageant is still held on the steps of the Academy on the morning of Procession. This includes a re-enactment of the handing of the keys to Bathgate Castle by Robert the Bruce to his daughter Marjory and her husband Walter Stewart (founders of the Stewart dynasty). At 12 noon the Bathgate Procession leaves the Old Academy and consists of children from all nursery, primary and some secondary school children, uniformed groups and other groups represented from the town.
It ends in Meadow Park for an afternoon of family fun and entertainment including music, stalls, fairground attractions, and, in the main arena, the committee usually manage to secure some spectacular shows.
The day ends with a torchlight procession and fireworks display....and brief respite for the committee until they start the planning for next year's event!
Published in Konect May 2014
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer